The Truth About Writing Books

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The other day, someone bemoaned the incredibly obvious (and yet not at all) to me: why isn’t writing a book easier once you’ve done it a few times? I snarkily said, it would be easy enough if we kept writing the same book over and over. But what fun would that be?

The fact is that every book is new and different and each one requires us to start from scratch and build it fresh. Sure, we can practice the craft, but it’s not like a recipe that you can repeat again and again with the same good results. We have the same kinds of ingredients–plot, character, foreshadowing, worldbuilding, dialog and so forth. But they aren’t EXACTLY the same, and we don’t mix them the same. Plus we do it with our eyes closed, standing on our heads in a hurricane.

I think that’s why beginning a book can be so frightening and why you can get halfway in and wonder if you should be writing at all. What were you thinking? How could you ever be a writer?

Ironically, while finishing a previous book can give you courage and faith that you can indeed complete a novel, it can also undermine your confidence by sitting there and taunting: You one trick pony! You boring hack! You only had one novel in you! Ha! I suck and you suck too! Go get a job cleaning toilets–you’re better at that! The variety of taunts is quite endless actually. Books can be very mean.

Writers pretend that they have control. We frequently have regular habits or rituals to get us going every day. Some plot, some take copious notes, some have the entire thing worked out in their heads, some draw flow charts, some do notecards, some sharpen a dozen pencils and write for regimented periods . . . Again, endless possibilities because every writer is neurotically different in his or her own way. I’m a desk straightener. *looks around desk* sort of. With limited results.

Sadly, for most of us, those habits and rituals are only illusions of control. The real fact is that every book is brand new and experience writing doesn’t always or even often help. There’s never any telling what it will do or how you will write it. That’s part of the excitement and fun of writing. It’s also the terrifying part. What if it doesn’t work? Part of you will know it’s just words, just pixels, just graphite and paper, or ink and paper, but part of you knows it’s also EVERYTHING that matters. You won’t know until you finish, and sometimes you doubt that will ever happen.

When I was writing my dissertation, I remember thinking I was a mouse trying to eat an Everest-sized hunk of cheese. Daunting didn’t begin to cover it. All I could do was eat one bite at a time and try not to think about what I was trying to accomplish. That’s how I treat all my writing now. Put my head down, keep going, and don’t look at how far I have or think about how awful it probably all is, or whether it’s broken and unfixable. I Just. Keep. Going.

Get it done any way you can. Just get it done. Just because you’ve written a book before, it before doesn’t mean you know how to do it this time. All you can do is write it and hope it turns out well–not even the way you planned it, because plans go to hell faster than pedophiles and rapists, and they go pretty damned quick.

That’s it. That’s the truth about writing books. Now. Go get it done.

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14 comments to The Truth About Writing Books

  • Mikaela

    I have no problem with finishing a first draft. That’s fun! Second drafts though… Just. Urgh.

  • Di, this is … This is me. This whole thing is the way I fell about writing. But maybe without the cuss words and the throwing things and the utter panic that takes me over. And this para, says it all for me.

    >>The fact is that every book is new and different and each one requires us to start from scratch and build it fresh. Sure, we can practice the craft, but it’s not like a recipe that you can repeat again and again with the same good results. We have the same kinds of ingredients–plot, character, foreshadowing, worldbuilding, dialog and so forth. But they aren’t EXACTLY the same, and we don’t mix them the same. Plus we do it with our eyes closed, standing on our heads in a hurricane.>>

    I’m probably going to think of something else to say later. Maybe. But right now, I’m just in awe of knowing that *someone else sees* it just like I do. And I got me a big ol’ grin on my face!

  • LScribeHarris

    >>The real fact is that every book is brand new and experience writing doesn’t always or even often help. There’s never any telling what it will do or how you will write it. That’s part of the excitement and fun of writing. It’s also the terrifying part.>>

    Too true. I just completed the first draft of my third novel. The only thing that kept me going was knowing that I’d managed to finish two books before, and that it was allowed to be REALLY awful…because I could always rewrite and fix it later. I think reminding yourself that the first draft is NOT the final draft is an important step–you’re allowed to write something terrible. Words don’t spill charmed and poignant from your pen every second.

    Thanks for the great post!
    Lauren

  • But sitting here wining about my lack of progress is just so much easier! 😉

    Thank you for the encouragement, Diana. It’s not just about Butt In Chair, it’s Bit By Bit. As with Mikaela, I find the second (or whichever) draft to be the real struggle. Maybe because it can’t be quantified the way a first draft can, with a word count. Especially when there are rewrites involved that change the story, and it’s not just a matter of adding or deleting words.

    Well, back to work for me.

  • This is just so true for me right now. I’m developing something new, and after engaging in an extensive dialogue with a friend about how I have moved away from extensive outlining in my books, I am suddenly approaching this latest WIP in a totally different way. I’ve never outlined more thoroughly. And I raise this simply to confirm what you’ve said: every project is different. Each time we start something new we reinvent ourselves creatively. There is the negative side of this, of course. Just because we finished that last one and liked it doesn’t mean that this one won’t suck. But there’s also another way of looking at it: this never, ever gets old. Every new book is an adventure a journey of discovery. I love that.

  • Diana, This is a great — and timeless — essay. It will never get less true. I particularly like the mouse and the Everest of cheese analogy; it sums it up perfectly. Thinking about the whole mountain will overwhelm you. One bite at a time is the only way to consume that monster.

  • Unicorn

    *applauds wildly* Exactly! If it weren’t for this fact, writing would be sooo boooring. Ever considered that us fantasy writers, who spend hours on chairs gawping at computer screens, are often close to adrenlin junkies? I’ll have to mull that one over a bit. (Don’t you love the rush in the middle of a combat scene? It is inevitably the moment at which you are most likely to be called away, naturally.)
    Mikaela, Laura – I thought the first draft was hard. Well, the second draft is *really* hard. At least writer’s block isn’t as serious in the revisions – you don’t have to do quite as much inventing as in the first draft.
    Thanks for the post, Diana.
    Unicorn

  • […] this article by Diana Pharaoh Francis dropped into my lap (so to speak.) today. Thanks to David B. Coe for […]

  • Thank you for the inspiration!

    >>All I could do was eat one bite at a time and try not to think about what I was trying to accomplish.

    This is precisely what I needed to hear. I’m in revisions, facing a self-imposed deadline, and every time I think about the big picture and what I still have to fix my stomach drops, my heart stops beating for a split second, and I think I might cry. Or throw up. But you’re right, if I just try not to think about it, I can get back to work and the words will start to flow again.

  • You one trick pony! You boring hack! You only had one novel in you! Ha! I suck and you suck too! Go get a job cleaning toilets–you’re better at that!

    Hey, how did you hear that from my head? Are you psychic? *grin*

    This was great. I may print it out and glue it to the top of my monitor, just to keep myself from listening to the mean thoughts.

  • Sarah

    “Slowly by slowly” as my Ugandan friend likes to say. That and lots of support from friends was the only thing that got me through the dissertation. Ironically, it makes novel writing seem easy by comparison. When I hate, hate, hate myself as a writer, feel like the novel is stalled, can’t stand to tackle a scene, I remember that this still isn’t as bad as writing the dissertation was. Heck, this is fun, compared to the dissertation. And that does help.

    Megan – boy do I hear you! I still get the stomach flips and the desire to curl up in a tiny ball.

  • Diana> Great point here! And I hear you about the dissertation… though for me it was more like killing a huge monster one WHACK at a time. 😀 That was slightly more satisfying that eating a mountain of cheese (’cause I like cheese!) It is just one little bit, one little piece at a time and then it’s done–and works for lots of stuff in life (like grading, which I finally finished this morning after two days of it!) or packing, or whatever. Really good post for motivation. I don’t have to write the WHOLE thing today; I can just write some of it today. And that’s one step closer!

  • Razziecat

    Wow, great post! Should I be concerned that knowing how much work it is to write a book is never what scares me? It’s the fear of running out of things to say that sometimes makes me procrastinate.

    And PeaFairie, that’s a good point: I don’t have to write the whole thing today! 🙂

  • Nasty little bookses. Wicked, tricksy, false. Always taunting us.

    Don’t they know we are the master of the precious.